Monday, 29 October 2012

What - or who - is the barrier?

Mertola Castle (Photo: Fátima Alves)

A family arrives at the foot of Mertola Castle. They have four children. The mobility of one of them, a 10/11-year-old boy, is quite conditioned. One of his brothers picks up the stroller and runs to the top of the steps that lead to the entrance of the castle. The mother supports her son from the arm and they slowly start going up. Half-way, she suggests they took a rest. The boy prefers to continue. He´s making an enormous effort to place his foot on the next step; he´s tired and his foot is trembling. I don´t want to overtake them; I follow them, I go along with their rhythm. Once at the top of the steps, the boy finally takes a rest. His mother moves on a bit, trying to evaluate the difficulty of the rest of the way.

I witnessed this ‘ascend to the castle’ at the end of a week where I attended two meetings on museums and accessibility: the annual seminar of GAM –Group for Access to Museums, entitled Programming for Diversity, and the 1st Crossborder Encounter of Museum Professionals in Alcoutim.  A few days before GAM´s seminar, I had met with a Polish colleague who asked me: “What do you expect of these meetings?”.

Among museum professionals, accessibility is more and more of an issue. And the concept of ‘accessibility’ constantly grows and widens. It´s not only about being concerned and also obliged to attend to the needs of people with disabilities (physical and cognitive), but to a wide spectrum of intellectual, social and cultural needs of all citizens. It´s also about managing and being able to take advantage of people´s growing wish and need to be involved in the process of decision-making, so that they may feel represented in the final products museums propose to their audiences (my presentation on this subject in Alcoutim is available on the right-hand column).

I am writing this text approximately one week after and I realize that the issues that marked me the most in these two meetings and which made me think more were all related to mentality, our mentality, that of museum professionals.

Fernando António Baptista Pereira, a professor at the School of Fine Arts and curator of a number of exhibitions presented in Portugal and abroad, was the keynote speaker at GAM´s annual seminar. When asked which was his best and worst exhibition, he didn´t hesitate to admit that his worst exhibitions, although extremely beautiful, were those he had done for his peers, those which were not done with the general public in mind. Hearing this from someone who has curated and will curate in the future exhibitions which attract large numbers of visitors is a sign of hope. And just like Fernando António Baptista Pereira, there are surely more professionals in this field (curators and museum directors) who, even though they don´t say it, they know it is so. So, one wonders when we can expect to see in portuguese museums, especially national (public) museums, exhibitions which may be understood by the non-specialists who visit them and form the majority of visitors. When can we expect to see exhibitions which may be a source of new knowledge, true pleasure and discovery, instead of being a means of communication and dialogue among the ‘initiated’ few, while a source of frustration for the rest?

In Alcoutim, we had the opportunity to hear Maribel Rodriguez Achutégui talking about “Writing exhibition texts for all audiences”, which reminded us that it is possible, yes, to write for all, without making it sound childish, without vulgarizing, without compromising the scientific accuracy of the information we present. And to some of us, this brought back memories of GAM´s first annual seminar, back in 2006, “Do you know how to write for all? The accessibility of written communication in museums”, which was marked by two very special speakers: the late Helen Coxall (a museum language consultant – yes, the specialization exists, just like there exists extensive bibliography on this issue, part of it available on GAM´s website) and Julia Cassim (a designer associated to the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Inclusive Design). Later in that same year, Helen Coxall did a memorable workshop, Am I Communicating? Writing effective museum texts, organized by GAM at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. What has been the impact of these initiatives in Portugal? Those working in education services frequently complain that it is very difficult to convince museum directors and curators of the need to write texts in a more accessible language (not just exhibition texts, but texts for all sorts of supporting materials museums produce in order to communicate with people) – I can think of some exceptions, though, like the texts of the exhibition on automobiles at the Transport and Communications Museum in Porto or those at the Batalha Community Museum, to mention just two. One wonders, why is it so difficult to convince them? Have they never heard their visitors´s complaints? Or they don´t mind about them?

Another brilliant and very ‘educational’ presentation was that of graphic designer Filipe Trigo, who brought to us a number of examples we have all encountered during our visits to museums and exhibitions: books on the wall, small font size, labels which are hidden or placed too low or too high, constrasts that make reading impossible, a total anarchy in the presentation of contents (placed wherever it might be more convenient, without any logic), inadequate lighting. This presentation deserves to be seen by curators and museum directors, as well as graphic designers, as there doesn´t seem to exist consensus as to who imposes solutions on whom. There is distrust, though, and maybe also a somehow vague definition of the role of each one and, between the two, that of the museologist and/or education and communications staff. Woudln´t it make sense that each one was heard in the area of his/her speciality, with the final aim of offering visitors a better service?

Today I would be able to give a better answer to my Polish colleague´s question “What do you expect of these encounters?”. I expect that next time there is a meeting to discuss accessibility (any kind of accessibility) there are more museum directors, curators, architects and designers in the audience. This does not concern just the education staff. I would even say that it concerns more and more those who make the final decisions. What is the point of raising awareness among and giving technical preparation in museum studies courses to future museum professionals, who only in 20-30 years from now will be in a position to make decisions, if in the next 20-30 years they will be encountering the greatest barrier of all inside museums themselves? If these meetings go on being an opportunity for those already aware to get together and agree between themselves, their impact will continue being limited, almost inexistant. There is a need to make commitments and not just politically correct statements. There is also an obligation to abide by the law. And it has to be now, not in 20/30-years time. It doesn´t cost anything (and it doesn´t cost more...).

Joaquina Bobes, Textos expositivos y visitantes: ¿hablamos el mismo idioma? (with english translation from minute 14´35´´)
Julia Cassim, Inclusive design


Anonymous said...

Excellent text. The opening story moved me more than I expected...

Ania said...

You touched the point which I've been thinking since the GAM seminar... I remember like once I asked one of my colleagues: for who museum should be? He said: for museologists! With disarming frankness! And I think so, that this mental barriers sometimes are much more toilsome, demanding, and costly than any others. But, anyway, it's just one of boundaries to cross, is it?